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Sean Quinn: Trouble for Ireland's 'richest man'

6 April 10 11:25 GMT

Sean Quinn, reputed to be Ireland's richest man, is under pressure after the High Court in Dublin ordered administrators to take control of one of his insurance companies. BBC News Online profiles the industrialist.

Sean Quinn is the sort of self-made man who could have sprung from the pages of a Victorian novel.

He left school aged 14 and as a young man borrowed £100 to start a business selling gravel quarried from the family farm in County Fermanagh.

From those humble beginnings the 63-year-old built a huge conglomerate which made him a billionaire several times over.

His Quinn Group has interests in building products, insurance, glass, plastics, radiators, hotels and pubs.

He employs more than 8,000 people worldwide and commands a special respect in the Irish border counties of Fermanagh and Cavan where many of his employees are based.

Gamble

Despite his enormous wealth he maintained a reputation as a plain-living man who rejected the sometimes vulgar trappings favoured by some of those who made fortunes in Ireland's boom years.

Part of the Quinn mythology describes how he still takes part in a Tuesday night card game with old friends, where the most players can lose is a £5 and the biggest win is £10.

However, it was a much bigger gamble which has placed his empire under huge pressure.

Mr Quinn in effect bet a hefty chunk of his fortune on Anglo Irish Bank, a bank which is now in state ownership and an emblem of the disaster which has befallen the Irish economy.

Mr Quinn built up a position in Anglo using financial products known as Contracts For Difference (CFD).

CFDs allow an investor to buy an interest in a share without owning the share.

It takes the from of an agreement between two parties to exchange the difference in value of the share, between the time at which a contract is opened, and the time at which it is closed.

In simple terms a buyer of the CFD, like Mr Quinn, is betting the value of the share will rise over the life of the contract meaning they will reap a profit.

CFDs are attractive to investors because they do not have to put down the full value of the shares - typically a CFD investment costs just 10% of the value of the underlying share.

By 2008 Mr Quinn had used CFDs to build a position equivalent to about 25% of Anglo, but as the value of the bank plunged he was on the wrong end of the CFD deal.

In July 2008 he crystallised his losses by converting the CFDs into an ordinary 15% shareholding- a move which cost him around 2.5bn euros (£2.2bn). At least some of the shares were bought with borrowings from Anglo.

The remainder of his position was bought out by 10 major customers of Anglo. The bank lent them the money for the deal to prevent the shares coming onto the open market, which would have depressed the bank's value even further.

Administration

The first signs of the problems the disastrous investment would cause came in October 2008 when Mr Quinn was forced to resign from Quinn Insurance - the crown jewel of his empire.

The Irish Republic's financial regulator found the insurance business had made loans to other parts of the Quinn Group to cover shortfalls caused by the Anglo problem.

The regulator fined both the insurance company and Mr Quinn for failing to inform it of the loans, as required.

It was a similar problem which was at the root of the latest troubles which began last week.

The regulator successfully petitioned the High Court in Dublin to have Quinn Insurance put into administration for breaching solvency rules - in simple terms how much money was set aside to cover claims.

The regulator said some of that money was being used as security for bank loans made to other parts of the Quinn Group.

The fear was if the banks called in their loans then policy-holders could be left in the lurch, though Quinn insisted there was no chance of that happening.

The company said the profits from the insurance business, which it puts at 20m euros a month, are vital to servicing the debt of the wider Quinn Group.

Mr Quinn has been mounting a vigorous public relations campaign aimed at having the administration reversed.

He might win in the court of public opinion but what really counts is what happens when the matter returns to the High Court later this month.

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